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Religion Part II: Playing Pinball

The 1975 film “Tommy,” which is a musical from the Who album of the same name, is admittedly not a very good film.  But I like the message, and over the years have come to believe it foresaw the development of religion as it exists in western culture today.

If you haven’t seen it, the film is about Tommy, a deaf, dumb and blind kid who “sure plays a mean pinball” (as the song goes).  Tommy had a tough childhood and a tough life.  But he seeks meaning in life and finds it playing pinball.

People see both that Tommy is an awesome pinball player, but more critically, that he finds peace through pinball.

Predictably, playing pinball to find spiritual meaning becomes a craze that those around him cash in on.  He becomes a cult figure, and his pinball camps become a church of sorts.  Ultimately the church attendees realize that blocking their vision and hearing and playing pinball does not lead them to God; and the business of charging people to find peace through sense-deprived pinball playing fails.

In the good old days, religion was a major political and social institution in western culture (and still is in many parts of the world).  But it was able to hold that position largely as a function of being the only source for explaining the miracles of the universe.  Miracles like rain and disease were explained by the church in ways that benefited the church and reinforced the reasons that people needed to adhere to church doctrine.

With the advent of modern science, the church lost that role and much of its power.  But people still want to believe that life is more than just an accident, that their existence has meaning.  For most people, finding this meaning is a central part of being at peace with themselves.  Religion continues to offer people assistance in this process.  Accordingly, although religion lost the part of its role that gave it the most political clout, it retained a component that allows it to continue to be important in the lives of many people.

But traditional religions are bogged down with old doctrine built at the time when religion was really about power and control – the “explaining the mysteries of the world” part.  As a result, traditional religions have fractured and evolved as they have tried to shift to focus to this new role which, if it was part of traditional religion at all, was a small part.  Some religions have been more successful at remaining relevant than others.

At the same time, so-called “new age” religious movements have emerged, being free of the traditional baggage of the older institutions, they are more able to promote themselves as being focused on, and insightful about, this personal meaning piece of the puzzle.  Likewise old religions from other parts of the world have been introduced to westerners without the baggage that they carry in their homelands – claiming by their promoters as having all along been in the personal meaning business. And so we have seen movements from Hare Krishna, to Buddhism, to Hinduism sweep through western cultures as the latest and greatest religion for those who feel compelled to find something to believe in that isn’t tied to the traditional religions they are anxious to reject.

Getting back to Tommy, my point is that this new role of religion as the source for finding inner peace is no more valid than the old “explaining mysteries” role.  Finding inner peace is a personal journey (pretty cliché, I know – but true I think) – and it only comes to those who work through their own issues and who self-reflect.  You can’t join this group, or read that book, and get there.  While the leader of that group or author of that book may have in fact found their way, that doesn’t mean it will help you – in fact it’s just as likely to help you find peace as it would be for you to put in earplugs and put on blinders and start playing pinball.

Finding peace, I would suggest, is about knowing yourself; and knowing yourself is a product self-reflection.  And all of that takes effort and patience.  Looking for shortcuts – whether that’s at a church, mosque, temple, the bookstore, or a pinball arcade is foolishness.  As the Grateful Dead once said: “Once in awhile you get shown the light in the strangest of places if you look at it right.”  Or as Walt Whitman explained:  “All truths wait in all things.  They neither hasten their own delivery nor resist it.”

Advantage Aged

As I get older I have:

… more fat and less hair. I don’t really care about the hair, but the fat is annoying.  Advantage youth.

… fewer unexpected mind-blowing really fun experiences, more moments where I am completely content with who I am and where I am.  Wash.

… less material desires.  Advantage aged.

… more patience.  Advantage aged.

… less stress and more peace.  Advantage aged.

All in all, older is better.